How Do We Know?

Over the past month and a half or so, my wife, Jennifer, and I have been meeting with Mormon missionaries in our home once a week. They knocked on our door one Saturday, and I was excited to finally be visited by missionaries! After all, we moved to Utah a little over a year ago, and newcomers are usually visited pretty quick here as compared to other states.

I’ve really enjoyed our conversations. We get along really well, which helps when discussing issues that we disagree on. It’s also been a great learning experience for my wife and me as well.

The topics we discuss each week have been varied: the Trinity, the nature of revelation, the human condition and salvation, among other things. Needless to say, our views differ on most of the issues, and I’m thankful that “our missionaries” (as we affectionately call them) have not shied away from discussing those issues, especially those surrounding what we believe about Jesus.

So far, we’ve met four times, and I believe the most foundational difference in our views comes down to epistemology: “How do we know what we know?”
For our missionaries (and according to the official teaching of the LDS Church), the most important piece of evidence for the truth of the Latter-Day worldview is one’s own personal testimony within themselves and from God that the words of the Book of Mormon are true.* While personal spiritual experience is certainly a part of the Christian worldview, we believe that there is good reason–in the form of historical and philosophical evidence–to believe that the Christian, biblical worldview is true and conforms to reality. As my wife has pointed out to our missionaries, if Truth is based only on our personal testimony within ourselves, how do we know the validity of one person’s personal testimony as compared with another’s?

The view of our missionaries–and I believe most practicing LDS people–is that anyone can conduct research and find the results he or she wants, but we will only find the results we want to find. If I were to set out on an archaeological quest to show that the stories in the Book of Mormon do not even remotely correspond to the archaeological evidence, that’s the conclusion I would reach. But if I set out to show that the Book of Mormon is true, that’s the conclusion I would reach. They do not believe that the LDS worldview can be proved or disproved.

Yet the Christian worldview holds that if we are to believe in something, it must be internally consistent, it must be tenable (livable), and it must correspond to reality. In other words, it must be verifiable by outside sources. So, even before we sat down in our living room around a plate of delicious treats and before we even realized it, we were at an impasse. Any discussion on whether there is evidence for a particular worldview is irrelevant. To them, what matters is the personal testimony they feel they have received from God.

We will continue to meet with our missionaries, at least until they are transferred to another district. Hopefully, in the coming weeks we will have them over for dinner, and I plan to take them to a local minor league baseball game as well, if they can get permission. Even if we remain at an impasse, I’m thankful for our time with them. I’m also thankful that I’m now a little more aware of how and what I teach. As a pastor, I need to make sure I help the students in our church develop a fully-orbed worldview, as one of my seminary professors is fond of putting it. Certainly a personal, real encounter with the God of the Bible is an important part of one’s faith in Jesus Christ. However, we cannot rely only on emotional experiences, because those can be fleeting and they can be deceiving. Sometimes, coming to God is not the result of an emotional experience, but rather the result of continually doubting the truth of Christianity until the mounting evidence requires that we admit it is true. As one South African at L’Abri put it to Nancy Pearcey (recounted in her book Total Truth) when she asked him why he had become a Christian, “They shot down all my arguments.”

*See http://mormon.org/book-of-mormon/, under the heading “How to know the Book of Mormon is true.” The following was current on the page as of August 2010:

Of course it’s one thing to read the Book of Mormon and another to believe deep in our hearts that what it says is true. This sincere belief, or testimony, in the truth of the Book of Mormon comes when God sends His Spirit to confirm the truth of what we read. We can feel this confirmation when we study the Book of Mormon with diligence and faith, as we are promised in the following scripture:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. ” (Moroni 10:4)

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